Defining a Global Historical Archaeology

Every historical archaeologist has at some point defined the discipline to the visitors at an archaeological site, a roomful of students, or a colleague or community member.  Most of us have a pretty clear notion of what distinguishes historical archaeology, and while it may diverge from what our teachers once told us, the conventional definitions in reference sources, or even the SHA’s own definition, we do seem to return to some consistent elements:  for instance, material things always seem to lie at the heart of what we do; most of us see ourselves as multidisciplinary scholars; we value rigor and replicability (even if we entertain sophisticated theory or are sometimes wary of being labeled a “science”); and we focus on peoples living in the last half-millennium or thereabouts.

Nevertheless, it is still completely reasonable that we have some distinctive visions of precisely what constitutes historical archaeology (or should define it) (compare the historical archaeology course syllabi definitions at the SHA Syllabi Clearinghouse).  The discussion over what defines historical archaeology has roots reaching over more than a half-century, and the dynamism of the discussion over our field is a good indication of historical archaeology’s dynamism and growth.  As the field now stretches its chronological boundaries into the contemporary world, encompasses an increasingly broad range of intellectual traditions, and pushes its geographic horizons to every reach of the planet, that discussion may be as lively as it was in the 1960s.  The SHA does not need to impose a definition of the discipline onto everybody digging something we might call historical archaeology, and in fact the discussion of the rich range of historical archaeologies is more important than forging a universal definition of the discipline that encompasses every time and place.  Instead, we need to continue to promote a rich discussion that reaches across global divisions, lines of historical difference and contemporary inequality, and moments in time.

The differences in conventional definitions of historical archaeology are perhaps most apparent outside the confines of North America.  As we prepare for our annual conference in Leicester in January, 2013 and then Quebec a year later, it is increasingly evident that what North Americans call historical archaeology goes by a variety of labels in Europe, Africa, South America, or the Pacific World: post-medieval, modern, and contemporary archaeologies all describe some scholarship akin to American historical archaeology.  Historical archaeology emerged at roughly the same moments in North America, the UK (with the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology’s formation in 1966), and Australia (the Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology was founded in 1970).  All of these scholarly traditions push the conventional North American framing of historical archaeology in productive and exciting ways.

The most influential definitions of North American historical archaeology tend to revolve around the cultural transformations associated with Anglo and European colonization.  However, that definition looks out at the globe from the New World and has often somewhat ironically not examined the very European and African societies sending peoples to the New World.  For our European colleagues doing archaeologies of the last 500 years, the transformation into a post-medieval world reaches well into the medieval period and reveals dramatic variation from the Iberian Peninsula into central and northern Europe.  Pictures of Africa and Asia likewise have a historical depth that is not easily accommodated to a narrowly defined focus on European colonization alone.

Many historical archaeologists have focused on the ways in which emergent capitalism and colonization transformed the planet and provide an intellectual framework for historical archaeology.  Yet that sprawling profit economy was never utterly homogenous and integrated despite its global scale.  Capitalist penetration into New World colonies, Africa, and the breadth of Europe itself was inevitably variable across time and space, and archaeologists have particularly rich data to dissect the contextually distinctive spread of capitalism and local experiences of capitalist transformations.

The rapid growth of contemporary archaeology encompasses a breadth of research subjects that likewise stretches our conventional notion of historical archaeology.  William Rathje’s garbology studies laid much of the foundation for archaeologies of the recent past and contemporary world, and Americans have conducted a variety of modern material culture studies since the 1970’s taking aim on everything from electric cars to pathways of migration to wartime detention centers.  Archaeologies of the present-day world have been exceptionally active in the UK and Europe, where contemporary archaeologists have conducted creative, thoughtful, and challenging research on everything from wartime landscapes and prison camps (in Finnish, but video images) to Cold War materiality to punk graffiti.  For many of us this scholarship is intimately linked to historical archaeologies that have focused on more distant pasts and should have a clear role in a global historical archaeology that reaches firmly into the present.

The transformation to an increasingly global historical archaeology may be bearing the fruit envisioned by the very first historical archaeologists, whose January, 1966 gathering at Southern Methodist University was dubbed the International Conference on Historic Archaeology” (my italics).  In 1968, SHA President Ed Jelks (1968:3) intoned that “Historical archaeology has much to gain in the long run from encouraging a spirit of concerted, interdisciplinary, international cooperation.”  Many of our colleagues in the nearly 50 years since the Texas conference have been committed to a historical archaeology that always thinks of global systemic relationships beyond our local sites, but we are especially fortunate to live in a moment in which there is a rich international scholarship of the last half millennium that is increasingly accessible thanks to digitization.

Indeed, that global historical archaeology may well be SHA’s next horizon for growth in terms of both the society’s literal membership numbers and the discipline’s more significant expansion as a scholarly voice throughout the world.  Historical and post-medieval archaeologists are researching nearly every corner of the world and bring rich scholarly traditions distinct from North American anthropology.  That global historical archaeology is profoundly shaped by the concrete connections made possible through online scholarship and communication across a wired planet, and it bears significant debts to the SHA’s own commitment to conduct international conferences.

The Society for Historical Archaeology is only one steward for this rich international scholarship, and that scholarship is inevitably richer for including a broad range of global archaeological methods, scholars, and approaches.  International historical archaeology provides increasingly rich possibilities for the scholarly growth of historical archaeology that is increasingly globalized, compelling, and intellectually rigorous.

Jelks, Edward B.

1968 President’s Page: Observations on the Scope of Historical Archaeology.  Historical Archaeology 2:1-3.

Friday Links and Photo of the Day!

This week’s photo is of a young visitor to George Washington’s Ferry Farm on July 4, 2012, gazing into the Small Finds Laboratory as lasers play across an historic artifact, recording attributes that will enable a digital three-dimensional (3D) model of the object to be created. The Scanning project is part of the Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University, directed by Bernard Means. Using this technology, researchers across the world will be able to manipulate, rotate, and measure the 3D digital model from the safety (and comfort!) of their own labs or offices. The 3D digital model will also be used to enhance web content and will be incorporated into computer tablet tours of Ferry Farm.  More information on the 3D scanning project can be found at: http://vcuarchaeology3d.wordpress.com/.  Details of Ferry Farm and the archaeological investigations at George Washington’s Boyhood Home are available at: http://kenmore.org/ff_home.html. You can also read a post that Dr. Means wrote for the SHA Blog about 3D Digital Curation here.

Some Links

Excavations are underway at William and Mary in search of the Bray School.

A courthouse in Stafford, Virginia has been located.

The Maryland Archaeological Conservation (MAC) Laboratory at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum announces the Gloria S. King Research Fellowship in Archaeology.

A blog post by the Northeast Museum Service Center about Scratch Blue Ceramic decoration.

A blog update from Fort St. Joseph in Niles, Michigan.

Archaeology and the Community

Over the past two years, I have been responsible for creating a wide variety of educational outreach programs for the Exploring Joara Foundation, a small public archaeology organization in western North Carolina.  This summer has been particularly scorching, and as we slowly stew in the thick heat of summer it is easy to forget that our role as archaeology educators goes well beyond our responsibility to stress the need for the preservation of archaeological resources and the understanding and appreciation of past cultures.  We may be the only real face of archaeology that the public sees, and it is our responsibility to not only make an impression that breaks the stereotype of treasure hunter, but to also inspire children and adults to ask more questions about the past and to become directly involved with its preservation.  This is the only way the public will not just know the importance of preservation, but leave with the belief that it is their responsibility to make that a reality.

The Exploring Joara Foundation is a perfect example of what results from putting the past in the public’s hands. The non-profit was formed in 2007 by members of the Morganton community with assistance from head archaeologists at the Berry Site.  The foundation’s goal was to help support professional archaeological research at the site. It has since grown to incorporate a public education program dedicated to promoting awareness and understanding of archaeological resources. This has put the organization in a fairly unique position. It is not tied to any specific school, institution, or state. Instead, the foundation was born from the local community’s desire to share the archaeology of their hometown and to preserve its history. Though we are over an hour away from any metropolis, our wide variety of outreach has provided us with a steady stream of students, scouts, teachers, homeschool groups, campers, and community members that are eager to learn more about the region’s archaeology. The foundation now functions as a year round resource for the community, offering free and paid programming to the public, while still helping to support professional archaeological research at the Berry site.

Public Field Day at the Berry Site.

Before 2010, the foundation only funded one public open house at the Berry Site each year. During those public days we heard numerous suggestions and requests from the community on what they felt we should offer. By building our outreach around their requests, we have been able to accommodate a broad range of ages and interests. The foundation now supports talks at local schools and organizations, teacher workshops, summer camps, and field and lab experiences for all ages. We added each of these programs only after listening carefully to the public on what they wanted or felt was needed for the community. This is essential to creating a public archaeology program that really works. It’s certainly a trial and error process, but knowing what the public wants is crucial.

Middle school campers learning to screen at the Berry Site.

One of the requests we heard most was for archaeology experiences for kids too young to participate in the Berry Site Field School. With direction from Dr. Theresa McReynolds Shebalin, the foundation is now able to offer camps for both middle school and high school students in July and August. The campers have a similar experience to field school students at the Berry Site as they work alongside professional archaeologists to uncover the remains of a 16th-century Catawba town and Spanish fort. Campers revel in knowing that they are contributing to research and that their interpretations may find their way into the professional archaeologists’ dialogue. During the hotter part of the day, campers take part in experimental archaeology projects, artifact analysis, archaeology games, and crafts. The camps are designed to be discussion based in order to give kids the opportunity to ask questions and pose hypotheses so that they can feel directly involved with the research. This year those discussions led the middle school students to ask questions such as: can you tell the difference between carbonized corn that has been cut or eaten off the cob? The question resulted in a blind experiment to determine if the campers could tell the difference with corn from the store burned behind the field house. At the end of the week, students leave the camp with the feeling that archaeology is a field that is accessible and possible to pursue as a career. It is necessary to make sure each person leaves not only with a better understanding of the past and an appreciation for preservation, but with a feeling that they participated in adding to ongoing academic research.

Caldwell County Public School group celebrates after a day in the field.

Since we can’t reach a large number of students through camps, the foundation also runs workshops geared toward 4th-8th grade teachers. On the first day, teachers learn about North Carolina prehistory and the science of archaeology through hands-on activities that they can adapt for use in their own classrooms. During a make-and-take session, teachers are encouraged to come up with their own practical applications with guidance from Exploring Joara staff. Over the past three years, we have observed that this flexible approach results in a better success rate of the material being used in the classroom than when teachers are simply introduced to standard lesson plans. On the second day, the teachers go out into the field to work at the Berry Site. This hands-on time is critical and even resulted in one teacher bringing her high school class to the site for an excavation workshop the following fall. To me, this is a perfect example of community action resulting in a more educated public.

Exploring Joara is a relatively young foundation, with an even younger public archaeology program. It was built by the community and therefore has strong public support and interest. This support is evident in the continued respect and protection of the Berry Site. The well-known site’s only security is the watchful eye of neighbors and community members who are proud of their local history and the site’s significance. I continue to be thankful for that support and know that without the public, the foundation and its unique programming would not exist. I hope to see programs like this continue to form out of the public’s desire and encouragement. If the small town of Morganton, North Carolina can garner enough interest to create a year round educational program, could this be the future of public archaeology? Have you seen a shift in public interest and concern in other areas of the country? Are there other avenues that we could pursue as archaeology educators that would reach a broader population or have a greater impact on the community?